Taken Aback by Leftist Shift, White House Endeavors to Con the Americas

Bush opened the White House Conference on the Americas on July 9th with a declaration that the United States is "an active neighbor of Latin America." In the past, coup-plotters in Guatemala and Chile, dictators in Argentina and El Salvador, and the Contras in Nicaragua might have agreed. 

Bush, Cheney, Wolfowitz and Rummy, however, have been busy crusading through the Middle East, and didn’t get the memo that Latin Americans were in revolt against neoliberalism and the Monroe Doctrine. The U.S. influence in the region is now a fraction of the The Colossus of the North’s traditional strength. 

Turning away from the nightmare in Iraq for just long enough to notice that our "backyard" is seceding from U.S. control, Bush took his first-ever in depth tour of Latin America in March and on July 9th held a conference with representatives of 150 religious, business and NGO groups flown in from across the hemisphere and 100 representatives of U.S. commerce and "civil society." 

As the July 10th’s Guardian reports, the whole affair had an air of desperation about it, as the Bush Administration struggles to not fail at something in its final 18-months. George and Laura Bush, Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice, Commerce Secretary Carlos M. Gutierrez, Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson, Education Secretary Margaret Spelling and U.S. ambassadors stationed throughout the hemisphere were all present to mingle with NGO and business leaders–referred to as "partners" throughout the Conference– in Latin America. The Administration is desperately trying to let these "partners" know that they have not been abandoned to the fearsome Chavista masses. 

Partners in Crime: NGOs and Neoliberalism 

Bush’s "partners" on display for each other and the world indicate the vision of Latin America that the White House supports and, increasingly, is nostalgic for. In 1997 sociologist James Petras published "Imperialism and NGOs in Latin America", which demonstrated how most NGOs in Latin America were created through U.S., European and International Financial Institution (such as the World Bank or the IMF) funding. The financial support of NGOs was part of a broader neoliberal project to shift services such as education, health care, housing and public assistance out of the public sector. When International Financial Institutions partnered with national elites to force Bolivia into structural adjustment "shock therapy" in 1985, the World Bank and other multilateral and national lending agencies pumped millions of dollars into a social emergency fund to prevent the shock therapy from triggering a social uprising. While a lot of money, it was a drop in the bucket compared to the massive cuts to state spending and the deleterious effects of removing price controls. Most importantly, it co-opted the language of the left ("grassroots," "bottom up," and "gender equality") and shifted people’s attention to "self-help" and away from collective action that targets the state, imperialism and multinational corporations. 

But what a difference a decade makes. When Petras was writing "Imperialism and NGOs in Latin America," neoliberalism was at the height of its power and social movement forces throughout the region were battered. Today, just ten years later, the U.S., local oligarchs and capitalist powers in the region are being pushed back by an array of progressive movements united in their rejection of neoliberal capitalism.

Neoliberal NGOs and business leaders are the "partners" the U.S. has always depended on to keep the Latin American masses in order. But recapturing people’s attentions from the unions, indigenous groups, campesino organizations and left-wing parties rising throughout the continent is a tall order. 

In his opening address at the recent meeting, Bush quickly got down to his priorities: pushing free trade and pushing back against Hugo Chavez and the tide of left-leaning governments emerging down South. "I think our citizens will be pleased to know, for example, that we’re working very hard to get trade agreements through our Congress, because the best way to help defeat poverty is to encourage commerce and trade." This is interesting given that, according to a 2007 NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll, only 28% of people in the U.S. think that trade has benefited their country. It’s hard to say whether Bush’s claims about "free" trade will be greeted with more cynicism in the U.S. or in Latin America. 

Condoleeza Rice went so far as to say that "trade is not a conspiracy to make the rich richer. Rather, it is the greatest force for personal transformation in our hemisphere today, and the heart of any serious strategy to help the poor." Condi hopes that U.S. funding for Latin America’s NGOs will distract people from the economic damage done by neoliberal economic policies. 

After the President’s rambling opening speech (the corporate media preferred to describe it as "informal"), six panelists from "civil society" and business spoke of the work they were doing. (Read the transcript or watch the video here. Bush’s attempt to speak Spanish doesn’t really come across unless you watch the video). Maria Pacheco, a Guatemalan businesswoman and President of an NGO that "brings markets" to poor indigenous women, began her comments by gushing that "I’m really happy to be in a country like this, because I think this country represents dreams and represents dreams becoming realities. And I also come here to this country with a dream." 

Ms. Pacheco then went on to describe how free market capitalism was saving the poor in Guatemala: "the most important thing that we saw is…the human potential that was in these women, that seemed to be a problem, just came out through markets. And the pride that you could see in them is really what I think markets are all about…So I’m really optimistic because what I have seen is that trade can be beautiful — a trade that recovers ecosystems; a trade that values ancestral cultures; a trade that incorporates people that were outside of the productive sector, for the first time, into a supply chain. I think that kind of trade becomes a very important tool." Believe it or not, no one from the Brazilian Landless Workers Movement (MST) or the Bolivian El Alto Neighborhood Association was invited to be on the panel. 

In a press briefing leading up to the Conference, Thomas Shannon, the Assistant Secretary of State responsible for the Americas (COHA’s description of Mr. Shannon here), made the astonishing comment that the Administration "didn’t have any political litmus test" when deciding who to invite. (This was in response to the question of whether any "Chavezistas"[sic] were invited. Read the whole transcript here, if you’d like.) 

An approving President then thanked the reverential Ms. Pacheco for demonstrating the virtues of capitalism for the "problem" poor, saying that "it’s very important for my fellow citizens to understand that when we open up markets in a fair it benefits us. It particularly helps lift people out of poverty. And that’s what we want. We want people prosperous in your neighborhood." One might doubt Bush’s sincerity in wanting a ‘prosperous neighborhood.’ I do not doubt, however, that the President has grown wary of angry poor people electing left-wing governments. 

Vivian Alegria, with the President of the Coca Cola Foundation in Mexico, was trotted out to show that, according to Bush, "there’s a lot of corporate America that are very much involved in the communities, of which they’re active." Neither Bush nor Alegria mentioned the 2005 anti-trust lawsuit that a small convenience store owner in Mexico brought against Coca Cola after being strong armed into carrying only Coke products. The record $68 million judgment humiliated Coke and exposed their predatory practices in a country that is the highest per-capita consumer of soda in the world. 

Bush seemed like a trustee of a wealthy foundation, more of a Bill Gates than a statesman, as he listed the recipients of U.S. grants in the region to an eager to please crowd of well dressed NGO oligarchs and market hungry businesspeople pretending to represent the starving masses of their banana republics. The Conference’s message was that social exclusion and poverty are best combated through free trade and private charity. Any hypothesis as to what causes exclusion and poverty went unmentioned, as did any efforts that lay beyond the safe confines of neoliberalism. 

The White House’s little piece of hemispheric performance art, however, didn’t even merit a mention in the New York Times. Despite all-star appearances by key members of the Bush Administration, the only mentions in the U.S. press that I found were a Miami Herald article and an angry Washington Times editorial by Rep. Dan Burton, Indiana Republican and ranking member of the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on the Western Hemisphere. He claims that lefty members of congress are misguided for calling the U.S. relationship with Latin America "broken" and that "the president is addressing root problems through substantive discussions on investing in education, meeting health care needs, expanding economic opportunity and building public-private partnerships." 

Perhaps the U.S. media wasn’t really the audience for this spectacle after all. With Bush’s base among white racists furious at legislation that would (supposedly) legalize 12 million undocumented immigrants, perhaps the White House doesn’t want too much domestic coverage of the event. The Conference received much wider coverage in Latin America, although many papers in the region ignored the whole charade. 

Free Trade and the Specter of Chavismo 

The other target audiences of the White House were the Democratic controlled Congress and corporate America. While Bush sought to assure the captains of finance and industry that the U.S. wouldn’t lose Latin American capitalism to democracy and self-determination, many of his comments, along with those of Thomas Shannon and Condoleeza Rice, were thinly veiled threats to the Democrats: pass the Free Trade Agreements with Peru, Panama and Colombia or we’re letting Hugo Chavez take over the continent. 

The National Association of Manufacturers put it more bluntly on their blog. The NAM argues that "congressional backtracking on a bipartisan trade [sic]" as "not just economically damaging, but also causing harm to U.S. foreign policy. It’s important to recognize that we do not operate in some Latin American vacuum, with no consequences for instructing our partners to take a hike. Anti-market, anti-American political forces are ascendant even as we alienate our allies. Daniel Ortega, Evo Morales, Fidel Castro, Hugo Chavez are actively working to harm the United States. And we’re telling Colombia to prostrate itself to organized labor’s demands? And Peru to stop bothering us?" U.S. corporations, ideologically flexible, are adept at crafting their arguments to political hysteria, whether over communism or Islamist terror. 

At the Conference, however, Venezuela was the big red elephant in the room. The strange White House policy of not mentioning Hugo Chavez by name persisted throughout the conference. Regardless, Venezuela was the unnamed dark alternative to everything "great" Bush showcased. 

Bush called on Congress to pass Free Trade Agreements with Peru, Panama and Colombia by the beginning of August. Despite buying off certain Congressional Democrats like Nancy Pelosi, Charles Rangel and Portland’s very own Earl Blumenauer on some of these deals, it now seems increasingly less likely that any trade deals will pass in 2007. 

"Advancing The Cause Of Social Justice In The Americas" 

Yes. That is actually the Conference’s "theme." 

It’s funny how Bush speaking to Latin Americans brings out all sorts of vocabulary words that you would otherwise never, ever hear from the White House. From expressing solidarity with "trabajadores y campesinos" to calls for "social justice not just for elites but all citizens," the White House has taken to dressing neoliberalism up in populist fatigues. (Seriously, I challenge readers to find another example of a White House official using words like "elites" or "social justice." Try searching the White House website for the terms). 

Condoleeza Rice uses the word "radical" once and the word "revolutionary" at least twice, in reference to what she terms democracy. The cooptation of leftist discourse by NGOs noted by Petras in 1997 continues, but now rings increasingly hollow. Who, for example, believes Condi is sincere when she says that "advancing social justice" promotes "political and social marginalized citizens, like indigenous peoples and the descendants of Africa." 

When the spectacle of the White House Conference on the Americas wound down, Bush and other Secretaries thanked the invited guests, turned out the lights, and moved on to manage the quagmire in Iraq and evade Congressional subpoenas. Latin America’s social movements, busy constructing a new Americas, didn’t seem to notice. 

Daniel Denvir is the Coordinator of the Portland Central America Solidarity Committee (www.pcasc.net). Thea Riofrancos extensively edited this article.